Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 24
THE VIAL OF WRATH
Elijah Rebow, in the pride and ostentation of his heart, had invited the curate, the clerk, Mrs. De Witt, Farmer Goppin, Reuben Grout, innkeeper of the Rising Sun, and several others to eat and drink with him and his bride at Red Hall after the ceremony. The marriage had taken place in the afternoon. The law in Marshland was flexible as osier—it must bend to man's convenience, not man submit to law.
Mrs. De Witt took the management of everything out of the hands of the feeble Mrs. Sharland. "You're not up to the job," she said. "It wants someone with eyes in her elbows and as many legs as a crab."
Mrs De Witt was everywhere, in the kitchen, the hall, the oak parlour. She had pinned up her silk dress about her, so that it might take no harm.
"There," said she to the assembled guests, as she brought in a pail full of shrimps and set it on the table. "Stay your appetites on them, and imitate the manners of high society, which always begins with fish and works up to solids. I brought them myself as my contribution to the feast. Do you, Elijah, hand a wet round; if the others be like me they are dry. Marriage, as I always found it, is a dry job."
"Where is Glory?" asked Elijah.
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt. "That is like you, Elijah, shouting, 'Where is Glory?' Do you think she is to come here toozling about among the wittles in her best gown? She is upstairs getting her dress changed."
He was pacified.
Mrs. Sharland passed here and there, eager to be supposed useful, actually getting across Mrs. De Witt's path and interfering with her proceedings.
"I can't stand this," said the fishwife. "You go upstairs and see after Mehalah. I am going to dish up the pudding."
"I will take the gravy in the sauceboat," said Mrs. Sharland.
"Don't get your shivers on at the time, then, and send the grease over everyone," advised Mrs. De Witt.
"There now, Elijah!" exclaimed she, full of pride, when the table was spread. "Do look at them dumplings. They are round, plump, and beautiful as cherubs' heads on monuments."
"Where is Glory?" asked Rebow.
"Run up," said Mrs. De Witt to the mother, "tell the girl we are waiting for her. Bid her come at once before the gravy clots."
An Essex dinner begins with dumplings soused in gravy. When these have been demolished the flesh follows.
The guests sat, with black-handled knives and forks in hand, mouths and noses projected, and eyes riveted on the steaming puddings, ready to cut into them the moment the signal was given.
Mrs. Sharland was slow of foot. Every step was taken leisurely up the stairs and along the passage.
"I'm afeared," said Farmer Goppin, "the outer edge of the pudding, about an inch deep all round, is getting the chill."
"And there is a scum of fat forming on the gravy," said Reuben Grout, "just like cat-ice on my duck-pond, or like mardlins in spring on a ditch. Had not I better set the gravy against the fire till the good lady comes down?"
"She is coming," said Rebow; and then he drummed on the table with his knife. Mrs. Sharland leisurely returned. She was alone.
"Well?" from Rebow.
"Mehalah is not in her room."
"Curse it!" said Elijah. "Where is she, then? Go and fetch her."
"I do not know where she is."
"She will be here directly," said Rebow, controlling himself. "You may fall to, neighbours."
At the word every fork was plunged into the puddings, and every knife driven into their hearts. Each sought who could appropriate to himself the largest block of pudding. Then there ensued a struggle for the gravy, and great impatience was manifested by those who had to wait till others had well drenched their hunches of dough in the greasy liquor.
Rebow leaned back in his chair, holding knife and fork erect on the table. "Why is she not here? She ought to be here."
"Take some dumpling, Elijah?"
"I won't eat till my Glory comes."
"Lord preserve you!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt, slapping his back. "Go on and eat. You don't understand girls, as you do calves, that is a fact. Why, a girl on her marriage-day is shamefaced, and does not like to be seen. In high society they hide their heads in their wails all day. That is what the wails are for. I was like that. You may look at me, but it is true as that every oyster wears a beard. When I was married to Moses I was that kittle, coy young bird I would have dived and hid among the barnacles on the keel of the wessel, had I been able to keep under water like a duck."
"Where is she?"
"How do I know? Never fear; she is somewhere—gone out to get a little fresh air. It was hot and stank in that hold of an old church. What with the live corpses above in the pews and the dead ones below deck, it gave me a headache, and you may be sure Mehalah was overcome. I saw she did not look well. The pleasure, I suppose, has been too much for her. A wery little tipple of that topples some folks over." "You think so?"
"I am sure of it. Have I not been a bride myself? I know about those sort of things by actual experience. I've gone through the operation myself. It is wery like being had up before the magistrate and convicted for life."
Elijah was partly satisfied, and he began to eat; but his eyes turned restlessly at intervals to the door.
"Don't you put yourself out," murmured Mrs. De Witt as she leaned over his shoulder and emptied his glass of spirits. "Girls are much like scallops. If you want to have them tender and melting in your mouth, you must treat them with caution and patience. You take the scallops and put them first in lukewarm water, working up into a gentle simmer, and at last, but not under two hours, you toast them, and pepper and butter them, and then they are scalding and delicious. But if you go too fast to work with them, they turn to leather, and will draw the teeth out of your gums if you bite into them. Girls must be treated just similarly, or you spoil them. You wouldn't think it, looking at me, but my Moses, with all his faults, knew how to deal with me, and he got me that soft and yielding that he could squeeze me through his fingers like Mersea mud. True as gospel. Fill your glass, Elijah; it don't look hospitable to allow it to stand empty."
When the lady in her red coat entered, holding triumphantly above her head a leg of boiled mutton, there was a general burst of delight.
"A hunter's dinner!" said Goppin.
"But where is the bride?" asked Grout. "I want to drink health and a long family to her."
"Glory ought to be here. Go up. Mistress Sharland, and bring her down. She has returned by this time," said Rebow.
"I don't think she has," said the old woman.
"I am sure of it; go and look."
The widow revisited the bedroom.
When she returned she said, "No, Elijah; Mehalah has not come back. She has taken off her bridal dress and laid it on the bed, and has put on her blue jersey, and I see she has taken with her a red cap." "She tore that to pieces."
"She has been knitting a new cap this week," said Mrs. Sharland.
"I like that! She has done it to please me," said Elijah, his eye twinkling. "I loved her in that; and I hate to see her as she was tricked out to-day."
"We are waiting for you to carve," said Goppin.
"Don't forget we like fat," said Grout.
"I say," murmured Jabez Bunting, a storekeeper, "look at the gravy, how it oozes out; I'm fit to jump at the sight. Don't think we eat like ladies of quality, Rebow. Give us good large helpings, and the redder and rawer the better."
"Someone," said Elijah, "tell Abraham Dowsing to go on the sea-wall and look out for Glory, and bring her home."
"There's the boy what rowed me here," said Mrs. De Witt. "He is sitting outside on the step, and I'm throwing him the bits of skin and fat and gristle. I'll send him."
"Really," observed the Rev. Mr. Rabbit, after a fit of sneezing, "the circumstance reminds the student of Holy Writ somewhat of Queen Vashti."
"What do you mean?" asked Elijah abruptly.
"No offence, no offence meant," gasped the curate, waxing very red; "I only thought your good lady was to-day like Queen Vashti."
"Glory is like nobody," said Rebow, with some pride. "There never was, there never can be, another Glory. I don't care who or what your Vashti was—Was she beautiful?" shortly interrupting himself.
"Did she bring property into the family!" asked Mrs. De Witt, leaning over Elijah's shoulder and emptying his tumbler. "Elijah! you must replenish. Look hospitable, and keep the liquor flowing."
"I really don't know," said Mr. Rabbit.
"Then what do you mean by saying she was like my Glory?" asked Rebow angrily.
"I—I only suggested that there was a faint similarity in the circumstances, you know. King Ahasuerus made a great feast—as you have done." "Was there boiled mutton at it?" asked Grout.
"I really cannot say. It is not recorded."
"Give me boiled mutton, a little underdone, and I ask for nothing more," said Goppin.
"And," went on the curate, "he naturally wished his wife to be present. He wanted her to come down to be seen of his lords and princes."
"Go on! Damn your sneezing. Put it off till you're preaching, and then no one will care," said Rebow.
"But," pursued the parson, when he had wiped his nose and eyes, and recovered breath after the fit, "Queen Vashti refused to come down."
"Well, what did the husband say to that?" asked Elijah.
"If he was a sensible man," said Goppin, "he cut into the mutton, and didn't bother about she."
"You don't know, neighbour, that it was a leg of mutton," said Grout. "It might have been sirloin."
"Sirloin!" exclaimed Bunting; "I wouldn't go ten yards to taste sirloin. There's not enough on the bone, except fat."
"Go on," said Elijah to the curate. "How did the man—king, was he?—take it?"
"He dismissed Vashti, and took Esther to be his queen. But then," put in the frightened curate, thinking he had suggested a startling precedent, "Ahasuerus was not a Christian, and knew no better."
"Do you think," laughed Rebow, "that I would cast off my Glory for any other woman that ever was born? No, I would not. Let her do what she likes. She don't care to associate with such as you. She holds herself above you. And she's right. She is one the like of whom does not exist. She has a soul stronger and more man-like than anyone of you. If she don't choose to come and guzzle here along of you, she's right. I like her for it."
He flung himself back in his chair and drained his full glass.
"I ask you, Goppin! Did you ever see the equal of my Glory?"
"I can't say as ever I did, Rebow," answered the farmer. "I took the liberty to chuck her under the chin, and she up with the pitchfork out of my hand, and had like to have sent me to kingdom come, had not my good woman been nigh to hand, and run to the rescue. I hope you'll find her more placable when you come to ask a kiss."
Elijah rubbed his hands, and laughed boisterously.
"Ha!" shouted he, "that is my Glory! I tell you, Goppin, she'd have drove the prongs of the fork into your flesh as I dig this into the meat," and he stabbed at the joint fiercely with his carving fork.
"I dare say," grumbled the farmer, wincing and rubbing his leg. "I'd for my part rather have a more peaceable mate; but there's no choosing fat beasts for others, as the saying goes."
"What do you think of her?" asked Rebow, turning round with exultation on Bunting and Grout.
"She came to my old woman," said the latter, "and asked her to take her in and give her work. She wanted to leave you."
"She did," exclaimed Rebow. "And what did your old woman say to that?"
"She said she durstn't do it. She durstn't do it."
"She durstn't do it! " echoed Elijah with a great laugh. "That was fine. She durstn't do it!"
"No," pursued Grout, "without your leave."
"And you wouldn't have dared to do it neither," turning to Bunting, who shook his head.
"No, you would not dare. I'd like to see the man or woman in Salcot or Virley as would dare. I reckon there is none that knows me would make the venture. By God!" he burst forth. "Where is the girl? I will have her here; and I'm cursed if you shall not all stand on your legs, and drink to her health and happiness as the most splendid woman as ever was or shall be."
"Abraham Dowsing is at the door," said Mrs. Sharland.
"Come in, and say what you have to say before us all," called Elijah. "If it be anything about my Glory, say it out."
"She is gone off in her boat," said the old man; "I saw her."
"Why did you not stop her then?" asked Mrs. De Witt. "I stop her!" repeated Abraham. "She is my mistress, and I a servant."
"That is right," said Elijah, "if she had taken a whip and lashed your back till it was raw, you couldn't stop her. Where is she gone to?"
Abraham drew up his shoulders. "That's her concern. It's no odds to me. But I tell ye what, master. Here are you feasting here, and we hadn't had nothing extra with our wittles. I ask that we may eat and drink prosperity to you both, to her and you."
"You shall," said Elijah.
"Stay," put in Mrs. De Witt. "What do you mean, you old barnacle, you? Let your superiors eat their fill first, and then you and the other men shall have what's over. That's fair. I shall manage for you. Go, Abraham."
The supper drew to a close. Elijah drank a great deal. He was fretted, though he tried not to show it, by the absence of Glory. As more spirits were drunk and pipes were lighted in the hall, whilst the men of the farm fed in the kitchen, several of those present repeated their regret that she in whose honour they were assembled, the new mistress of the house in which they had met, had not deigned to show herself, and receive their good wishes and congratulations.
Rebow gulped down the contents of glass after glass.
Mrs. De Witt had seated herself with the rest, and was doing her best to make up for lost time, with the bottle.
"Elijah!" said she, "one or other must establish the mastery, either you or Glory. I did think she were a bit shy at first to come among us; but now the night is coming on and still she is away. I don't deny that this ain't civil. But then, she has lived all her life on the Ray, and can't know the fashions of high society; and again, poor thing, it's her first experience of matrimony. She will do better next time. Let us drink!" said she, holding up her brimming glass, "to her profiting speedily by her experience, and next time we have all of us the honour of attending at her wedding, may she do us the favour to respond!"
"Amen!" said the clerk, who was present.
"Go out, someone, and see if she is coming," said Rebow, his dark face burning with anger and drink. He could not, however, wait till the messenger returned, but left his guests, and went forth himself. He mounted the sea-wall, and turned his eyes down the creek; nothing was visible. He stood there, bareheaded, cursing, for a quarter of an hour, and then went back with knitted brows.
He found his guests preparing to depart.
"Go along!" he said; "I want no congratulations; say nothing. Glory and I have a marriage different from other folks, as she and I are not like other folks. We must fight it out between us."
He waved his guests away, with a rude impatient gesture.
Mrs. De Witt roused her boat-boy by kicking him off the steps—he had gone to sleep there—and then tumbling on top of him. She staggered up, tucked the lad under her arm, and marched off.
"If I meet Glory by the way, I'll send her home, I'll be sure and mind it," said she to Rebow as she departed.
He went in. He ordered Mrs. Sharland to go to her bed. The charwoman, had in for the day, cleared the table of all the glasses, save that of Elijah, and retired. He was left alone. He went to the back door and fastened it. Glory should not slink home that way without facing him. He seated himself in his arm-chair, and refilled his tumbler with spirits and water. He was very angry. She had deliberately insulted him before his guests, defied him in the face of the principal people of the parish. It would be spoken of, and he would be laughed at throughout the neighbourhood.
The black veins in his brow puffed out. A half-drunken, half-revengeful fire smouldered in his deep-set eyes. There was no lamp or candle burning in the room, but the twilight of midsummer filled it with a grey illumination.
He walked to the door, opened it, and looked out. The gulls were crying over the marsh, and the cattle were browsing in it. No Mehalah was to be seen.
"On my wedding day!" he muttered, and he resumed his seat. "On that for which I have worked, to which I have looked, for which I have thought and schemed, she flies in my face, she scorns me, she shows everyone that she hates me!"
His pipe was out; he threw it impatiently away. "She does not know me, or she would not dare to do it. There is no one in all the neighbourhood dare defy me but she. Everyone fears me but she, for everyone knows me but she. Know me she must, know me she shall. There will be no wringing love out of her till she bends under me and fears me. She will never fear me till she knows all. She shall know that; by God!" he cried aloud, "I will tell her that which shall make her shrink and fall, and whine at my feet; and then I shall take her up, and drag her to my heart, and say, 'Ah, ha! Glory! think what a man you have gotten to-day, a man whom none can withstand. There is none like me, there is none will dare what I will dare. You and I, I and you, are alone in the world. One must submit or there is no peace. You must learn to cower beneath me, or we shall fight for ever.'"
He went out again upon the sea-wall, but saw nothing, and came back more angry. As he stood on his steps he heard from the path to Salcot a burst of merriment. He swore an ugly oath. Those men, rolling home, were ridiculing him, keeping his marriage feast without the presence of his bride!
He flung himself again into his chair, and rocked himself in it. He could not sit there, tortured with anger and love, in the gloaming, doing nothing. He emptied the bottle, there was not a drop more in it, and he cast it on the hearth. Then he fetched down his old musket mounted in brass, and getting the vitriol bottle from the window, began to rub and polish the metal.
He wearied of that in the end. His mind could not be drawn off Glory, and wondering where she was, and why she had thus gone away.
"I love her," he muttered, as he replaced his gun on the nails above the chimneypiece, "but yet I hate her. My very heart is like Grimshoe with love and hate warring together, and neither gets the mastery. I could clasp her to my breast, but I could tear out her heart with my nails, because it will not love me." He rocked himself in his seat savagely, and his breath came fast: "We must work the riddle out between us. We can get no help, no light from any others; she and I, and I and she, are each other's best friends and worst foes." A firm hand was on the door, it was thrown open, and in the grey light stood Mehalah.
"Where have you been?" asked Elijah, hardly able to speak, so agitated with fury and disappointed love was he.
"I have been," she said composedly, "on the Ray, sitting there and dreaming of the past."
"Of the past!" shouted Rebow. "You have been dreaming of George?
"Yes, I have."
"I thought it, I knew you were," he yelled, "Come here, my wife."
"I am not your wife. I never will be your wife, except in name. I told you so. I cannot, and I will not love you. I cannot, and I will not, be aught to you but a housekeeper, a servant. I have taken your name to save mine, that is all."
"That is all because you love George De Witt."
"George De Witt is dead."
"I don't care whether he be dead or not, you think that he is your double. I tell you, as I have told you before, he is not. I am."
"I will not listen to more of this," she said in a hard tone. "Let me pass, let me go to my room."
"I will not let you pass," he swore; the breath came through his nostrils like the snorting of a frightened horse; "I will not. Hear me. Glory, my own Glory! hear me you shall." He grasped her arms between the elbow and shoulder with his iron hands, and shook her savagely.
"Listen to me, Glory, you must and shall. You do not love me. Glory, because you do not fear me. The dog whom I beat till it howls with torture creeps up to me and licks my hand, A woman will never love her equal, but she will worship her superior. You have shown me to-day that you think yourself on a level with me. You have donned again your cap of liberty," he raised one hand to her head, plucked off the cap and cast it on the floor, "thinking that now you have taken me before the world, you have broken my power over you. You do not know me, Glory! you do not know me. Listen to me!" Through the twilight she could see his fierce eyes flaring at her, her hair was disturbed by the hot blasts of his labouring lungs. His fingers that held her twitched convulsively as he spoke.
"Listen to me, Glory! and know me and respect me. I am no more to be escaped from than Fate. I am mighty over you as a Providence. You may writhe and circumvent, but I meet you at every turn, and tread you down whenever you think to elude me. Listen to me. Glory!" He paused, and drew a long breath; "Listen, I say, to me. Glory! how did you lose your money that night that Abraham Dowsing sold your sheep? I feel you stirring and starting in my hands. Yes, I took it. You went out with George De Witt, and left the purse on the table. When your mother left the room, I took the money. You may have it back now when you like, now that I have you. I took it—you see why. To have you in my power."
"Coward and thief!" gasped Mehalah.
"Ah! call me names if you like; you do not know me yet, and how impossible it is to resist me. You thought when you had got the money again, from George, that you had escaped me."
"Stay!" exclaimed Mehalah. "It was you," with compressed scorn, "that fired on George and me in the marsh."
"I fired at him, not at you; and had you not changed the place of the lanthorn in the boat, I should have shot him."
The girl shuddered in his hands.
"I feel you," he said with savage exultation. "You are beginning to know me now, and to tremble. When you know all, you will kneel to me as to your God, as almighty over your destiny, irresistible, able to crush and kill whom I will, and to conquer where I will. George De Witt stood in my way to you."
Mehalah's heart leaped and then stood still. Her pulse ceased to beat. She seemed to be hanging in space, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, hearing only, and only the words of the man before her.
"He left Mersea City one night. He left it in my boat with me."
He paused, rejoicing in her horror at this revelation of himself to her. "Have you not a question to ask me, 'Where he now is? What I know of him?'"
No—she could not speak, she could not even breathe.
"Do you remember when you came on Michaelmas Day to pay me my rent, how you heard and saw my mad brother in the cell there below?"
He paused again, and then chuckled. "The poor wretch died and I buried him there. I brought George here, I made him drunk, and chained him in my brother's place, and he went mad with his captivity in darkness and cold and nakedness."
The blood spouted from her heart through every artery. She tried to cry but could not, she strove to escape his hands, she was unable. She panted, and her eyes stood open, fixed as those of a corpse, staring before her.
"You lost your sheep," he went on, with exultation. "I took them. I took them to rob you of every chance of paying me, and keeping clear of me."
She did not hear him. She cared nothing about sheep. She was thinking of George, of his imprisonment and madness.
"At last, when I feared that after all you might slip from me by means of that cripple at Wyvenhoe, I did more. I watched you on New Year's Eve; I waited for you to go to sleep, that I might fire your house. You did better than I had thought, you went out; and then I set the Ray Farm in flames. What cared I for the loss? It was nothing. By it I gained you. I secured you under my roof, by burning you out of the shelter of your own." He swelled with pride. "You know me now. Glory! Now think you that escape from me is possible? No, you do not, you cannot. I hedge you in, I undermine the ground you tread. I saw away the posts that hold up the roof above your head. You know now what I am, irresistible, almighty, as far as you are concerned, your fate incarnate. And I know you. I know that you are one who will never yield till you have found a man who is mightier in will and in power than you; those who have fought are best friends after the struggle, when each knows his own strength and the full measure of the resistance of the other. We have had one wrestle, and I have flung you at every round; you in your pride have stood up again, and wiped the blood from your heart, and the tears from your eyes, and tried another fall with me; but now. Glory, you have tried your last. Hitherto you fought not knowing the extent of my power, thinking that I put forth my full might when I spoke, but that I had no strength to act. Now you see what I can do, and what I have done, and you will abandon the fruitless battle. Glory! Glory! Come to my heart. You fear me now, and fear is the first step leading to love. Glory! my own Glory!" his voice faltered, and his fingers worked, "I love you madly. I will do and dare all for you. I will live for you and for nothing in the world but you. Never till this day in the church have I so much as held your hand. Never till this moment. Glory! have I held you to my heart, never till this moment have I felt it bounding against mine, never till this moment have I kissed those dear, dear lips, as I shall now."
He drew her to him. He unloosed his hands to throw his arms round her. She felt them closing on her like a hoop of iron, she felt his heart beating like the strokes of a blacksmith with his hammer; his burning breath was on her cheek. He! He kiss her! She lie on that heart which had schemed and carried out the destruction of her George!
She cried out. She found her tongue. "Let go! I hate you as I never hated you before! I hate you as a mad dog, as a poisonous adder! Let go!" She writhed and slipped partly away.
"Never till I have held you to my breast and kissed you," he said.
"That never, never!" she gasped. She got her hands on his breast and forced his arms asunder behind her.
"Ha, ha! strong," he laughed, "but not strong as I." He gripped her wrists and bent her arms back. She threw herself on the ground, he drew her up. She flung herself against the chair, crushing his hand against the chimneypiece, so that he let go with it for an instant. She groped about with her free hand, in the dark, for some weapon, she grasped something. He cursed her for the pain she had given him, and attempted again to seize her hand. In a moment she had struck him—him the coward assailant, him the thief, him the murderer—between the brows with the weapon her hand had taken. It was a blow with her whole force. There followed a crash of glass, then a sense as of her hand being plunged into fire. Then a shriek, loud, tearing through roof and wall; loud, agonised, as only a man or a horse can utter in supreme moments of torture; and Rebow fell on the floor, writhing like a worm, with his hands over his face and eyes.
- "Mardlins" are duckweed.